After years of criticism for technically isolating its products to squeeze out competitors, Microsoft has formed a group of its own executives and outside IT professionals to discuss interoperability issues.

The company's Interoperability Customer Executive Council will meet twice a year at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington. The council will be led by Bob Muglia, an 18-year Microsoft veteran who is senior vice president of its Server and Tool Business division.

So far, the council's members include chief information and chief technology officers from Société Générale; LexisNexis; Kohl's Department Stores; Denmark's Ministry of Finance; Generalitat de Catalunya, the governing organisation for Spain's Catalonia region; Centro Nacional de Inteligencia, Spain's intelligence agency; and the US states of Wisconsin and Delaware.

The announcement comes as Microsoft is appealing against the European Commission's March 2004 antitrust verdict that the company has abused local antitrust law. That ruling in part focused on interoperability, forcing Microsoft to open up the source code for server communications protocols to competitors in the workgroup server market. The disclosure is intended to allow competing server software to interact as well with the Windows OS and Microsoft's own server products.

The European Commission has criticised Microsoft for not providing usable information, at one point threatening to fine the company €2 million per day. Microsoft has said its documentation is sufficient, and argues that the Commission's demands for more documentation could compromise its intellectual property.

The interoperability council will work with Microsoft's product teams to discuss issues such as connectivity, application integration and data exchange. Microsoft said businesses realise that having compatible software systems reduces costs and means better information access.

Microsoft also said it would work with competitors on interoperable technologies.